Mike at the Movies

Only the Brave (PG-13) ****

A bear on fire is the symbol of the forest fire that haunts Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin). It appears twice in the movie, once as a prelude to terror and another time as the symbol of the end of a crisis. The movie is remarkable in its ability to capture the fury and quixotic nature of big forest fires and of the aftermath of tragedy. The story is that of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, all but one of whom perished in a single fire on June 30, 2013. What makes the story particularly moving is the fact that the Prescott Hot Shots were the first community-organized band of Hot Shots given that designation by the firefighting community.

Marsh and rookie Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) are the focuses for the story. Brendan is seen as a stoner who wants to reform when he discovers that he is a parent. Marsh is in the last years of his service. Little space is spent discussing other members of the Hot Shots except for Christopher (Mac) MacKenzie, a sex-mad friend of Brendan who meets a nurse and suddenly reforms. More time is spent with horse trainer Amanda Marsh (Jennifer Connelly) and Eric Marsh who have problems in their marriage and their lives that are fleshed out late in the film.

Never in a long line of fire-fighting films has fire seemed more daunting and unbeatable. Modern sound adds to the impact. The film has several tear-inducing moments, especially Brendan’s return to the high school gym at a time when his sole presence tells the assembled townspeople all they need to know about who survived and who didn’t.

Part of the emotional impact of the film is in the realization that the Hot Shots were put together and worked together as a team without military supervision or a very tight organizational plan. They were all there voluntarily and died in a small circle underneath survival blankets that didn’t work. The movie works.

The Foreigner (R) ****

Jackie Chan as Quan, a former Vietnamese military special fighter trained by the US, suffers the death of his daughter, killed by a bomb he believes was set off by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The setting is contemporary so, if true, the emergence of a newly militant and dangerous IRA is a big deal. Fighting the push to the old warring days is Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), former IRA member but now a minister trying to maintain the peace. Or is he?

As so often happens with IRA-British Bureaucracy films, the plot becomes hopelessly entangled. Identities are murky at best and switch as well, making it difficult to see who’s on whose side.

Quan doesn’t care who’s fighting whom. He just wants to deal with the fellows who killed his only remaining relative. He does it as only Jackie Chan can. Hennessy and his family are eventually forced to retire for safety to a family farm where Hennessy is told they’ll be safe. Hennessy wryly comments, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

He is right as Quan uses every available bit of cover to wreak havoc on Hennessy and we try to figure out who is old-fashioned IRA, who is “Authoritarian IRA,” who is loyal to Hennessy and who is not, and which of his women—his wife or his mistress—is guilty of betrayal. In such a film as this, they could both be guilty!

As Quan weaves his relentless way through the morass of guilty and innocent, he keeps the audience on edge. You might enjoy watching the puzzle unfold, then fold up again.

The Snowman (R) ***

Disclosure: Jo Nesbø is one of my favorite Nordic noir writers and this is his biggest seller. I was, however, somewhat disappointed at the treatment it received on film. First, Michael Fassbender is far too handsome and young to play Harry Hole, Oslo detective. Second, the pace of Hole novels is relentless and steady. The film version plodded along and not until the last reel or so did it come up to speed. On the other hand, this is still a wit-twisting thriller, set up by snowmen that appear randomly at first, then whenever there is going to be another killing.

Extensive time is spent proving that Harry is a drunk and addict. Rebecca Ferguson, a bilingual Swedish actress, is effective as the Oslo detective Katrine Bratt who accompanies Hole and warns him of any romantic moves. He has no problems with that, preferring to reignite his relationship with Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son, Oleg. Other interesting players are Val Kilmer as a drunk Rafto, one of only two males targeted by the Snowman, and Chloë Sevigny as one of the victims.

The musical score consistently threatens more than it delivers, and the beginning moves so slowly you begin to think the film is intentionally slow to match the cold weather. Hole is still a fascinating character, and I hope a director with more respect for the character will take another shot at him.

Suburbicon (R) ***

George Clooney directed this piece, written by Clooney and the Coen brothers with Grant Heslov getting a credit as well. It stars Matt Damon as Gardner and Julianne Moore as Rose and Margaret, twin sisters. Gardner is married to Rose but the whole mystery begins with her apparent murder at the hands of two thugs: Alex Hassell as Louis and Glenn Fleshler as Sloan. Their role in the whole mess becomes clear late in the film when Oscar Isaac as insurance investigator Bud Cooper enters and tosses a wrench into the plans of Gardner and Margaret.

Meantime, neighbors gather in increasing numbers to harass and assault the only black members of Suburbicon, the Mayers. The demonstrations around the Mayers’ house have been done before and have the same mindless rationale that racism always has, but is that the core of the movie, or is it Gardner’s problems with the thugs or something else? Since the film doesn’t ever clarify its purpose, I’m not sure audiences have to decide.

Others I have talked with liked this film more than I did. I hope you’re one of them.

Geostorm (PG-13) ***

Gee, it was nice to see some places other than New York, DC, Chicago or LA being destroyed! What a relief to see London, African capitals, Brazil, and Brazil again, brought to the ground! How odd to see the geostorm end and see them pop right back up to health!

This movie errs on the side of balance. The story and the tease is about the storm, but most of the scenes and the talk—endless talk—is about computers and networks and codes. The storm comes as an unwelcome interruption to all the computer talk.

“Dutch Boy” is a vast computer network, internationally funded but managed by the US, that controls the weather. It all works fine until a village in Afghanistan’s desert freezes over and with it, its citizens. Hong Kong is next as the streets literally blow up in sudden and high degrees of heat. It becomes apparent to the original designer of the system, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), that someone has messed with his programming; these incidents are not random.

From that realization on, the plot turns to finding out who the villain is that is managing the whole transformation. I found it odd that the villain turns out to be someone with no noticeable computer skills whatsoever. (Spoiler alert!) Actually, since only a few characters with any computer skills at all are evident in the cast, that’s not as much a spoiler as you might imagine.

Abbie Cornish is a comely and grim Secret Service agent and a helluva driver, Andy Garcia a competent if colorless POTUS, and Ed Harris (Leonard Dekkom) an efficient secretary of state with bit parts handled efficiently if dully. This appears to be one of those films with ambitions (stoked by computer-generated imagery) for greatness that fails to inspire much respect. Somebody apparently forgot that audiences that go to this kind of film want massive destruction of big places and lots of people. When Afghanistan’s desert is your first target, you have a long way to go to catch up.

Jigsaw (R) **

For me, the first thing that makes a horror film interesting at all is characters you care about and don’t want to see harmed. “Jigsaw” has no characters that anyone would care for, other than close relatives. When one of the suspects becomes a pathologist with lots of ink on her right arm, another reason for caring is lost. When the form of the movie consists of alternating scenes from the postmortem suite and another murder or mutilation (not all mutilations result in death), it gets even grimmer. When one of the characters has supposedly died 10 years ago and reappears, all is just about lost. When somebody tries to link the bloody happenings to a political campaign, I gave up.

Take this stroll through buckets of blood if you care to, it’s just not for me. For those of you who like statistics: bucket head maiming (1), sawed off legs in sections (1), shooting (1) or (2), hanging (1). Oh, that’s too boring. Watch football for stats.

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